Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts

08 November 2021

Halloween: The (Literary) Flip Side


 by Steve Liskow

As crime/mystery writers, we've all probably written our share of Halloween-themed stories. Even if they don't sell, they're a convenient writing prompt when the cuboard is otherwise bare. Halloween, a week before Guy Fawkes Day for the British and only another week to Veterans' Day. Halloween and Samhain have become the autumnal duet, the night before All Saints' Day.

But what about the B-side, exactly six months earlier? Many writers have used that one, too, even though we may not notice it as readily.

Christianity has borrowed (Okay, stolen) from other religions since the beginning. Christmas and the Winter Solstice have merged. The vernal equinox, the myth of Mithras, Beltane, and various fertility rites have become Easter. But the writer's favorite may be Walpurgisnacht, April 30. Walpurga (various spellings) was a Polish priest canonized by the Catholic church centuries ago. Tradition asserts that the supernatural forces roam free on that night, and celebrants in parts of Europe light bonfires to keep the evil spirits at bay. And many writers have mixed the elements into stories we all know.

In the early English calendar, "Midsummer," which we'd expect to be in early August, was actually May first, a fertility rite (As in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"), with the Maypole that Nathaniel Hawthorne erected in Merrymount for one of his short stories.


Midsummer day followed Walpurgisnacht (April 30, remember?) and A Midsummer Night's Dream chronicles the night on which Shakespeare's young lovers get lost in the woods outside Athens so Oberon, Titania and Puck can cast spells upon them and the rude mechanicals. It all leads to a happy ending, though. Theseus marries Hippolyta, Lysander marries Hermia, and Demetrius marries Helena, all on May 1, presumably fruitful unions. I directed  the play in 1993 and played Wall in another production in 2001.

Sometime between those two productions, I worked with a director and a co-producer to wrestle Goethe's Faust, the two-part epic, down to a manageable length for a one-night presentation. The work is over 11,000 lines, nearly three times as long as Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest play, and we managed to cut over half of it and remain coherent. Goethe names a scene in Part I  "Walpurgisnacht," and a scene in Part II "Classical Walpurgisnacht." It was appropriate for our production, a summer show in a non-air-conditioned factory. With the stage lights, it was hot as hell. 

That same Walpurgisnacht is the day Bram Stoker sends the unsuspecting Jonathan Harker to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula's castle. Several beautiful women approach him with bad intentions, but the Count stops him before they can enjoy the fresh young blood he wants for himself.

More recently, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has three acts, and Albee called the second one "Walpurgisnacht." It follows "Fun and Games," in which Geroge and Martha welcome the unsuspecting Nick and Honey into their home. It's where the brutal psychological battle takes place, leading to "The Exorcism," in which George finally gets the upper hand on Martha and demolishes their own life of lies and delusions. The first act has lots of humor, but people tend to forget that when the demons come out to dance later on. I directed the play in 1996, one of my favorite projects. 


Last, and probably least, a case I only discovered last week when I was researching this post, Black Sabbath's perennial FM hit "War Pigs" was originally titled "Walpurgisnacht." I'm guessing they changed it because Ozzy Osbourne couldn't pronounce it.

Have you ever tried a Walpurgisnacht story? What other tales have I missed?

25 October 2021

Here and Now


by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, I gave a short story one last read-through before submitting it, and I found myself wondering, "Would this work better in present tense?"

I've written nine of my sixteen novels in present tense, mostly the ones that take place in Connecticut. The Detroit stories with "Woody" Guthrie use past tense except for scenes in Megan Traine's POV. She lives in the present. Both the short story that was a finalist for the Edgar and the novel that was short-listed for the Shamus were in present tense, too. 

Some of my Sleuthsayers mates say present tense takes them out of the story, and I know at least one publisher has guidelines on their website warning writers not to use it. OK. I'm going to go out on a limb here.

I don't think the average reader notices whether you use past or present tense. I don't believe that most of them think about why they like a story or not, except in terms of the character or the plot. They probably don't notice point of view, either (Unless it's done badly). Writers, of course, pay attention to those things, but how many "civilians" even notice that Bright Lights, Big City uses both present tense and second-person point of view? 

Last week, I stumbled upon The Storytellers, Mark Rubinstein's collection of interviews with several dozen crime, suspense, and romance writers. His conversation with Don Winslow, one of my favorites, was the longest interview in the book, and Winslow says he turned to preent tense the same way I did. He was writing a book in past tense, and, at some point, he found himself getting bored. As an experiment, he wrote the next page in present tense and it was like the entire world opened up before him.


That happened to me, too. Fifty or sixty pages into the first draft of The Whammer Jammers, I hit a wall. After struggling for a few days, I decided that since the book had lots of action, I'd treat it as play-by-play, like the sport announcers I listened to growing up in the 1950s. 

Bingo.

Winslow has an astonishingly varied background, our only shared experience being directing several Shakespearean plays, and when I read his comments on working with the Bard's language, I felt like I was listening to myself. Theater is ALWAYS in the present, and Shakespeare's images and rhythms delineate the characters and guide the movement in the scene.

Winslow points out that using present tense helps the reader participate in the story and "experience" all that is happening because it removes a barrier between reader and story. If the story is in the past, it suggests that it's already over and can't be changed. Present tense removes that safety net. MAYBE you can still change something, and that raises the stakes. 

In present tense, it's more natural to use active verbs and avoid state of being ("to be") constructions and passives. Instead of static visual imagery, tactile and olfactory details filtered through the POV character bring the scene to life. Description becomes the verbal equivalent of a long tracking shot that becomes a landscape painting, but when you offer the character's reaction/response to the place in present tense, you eliminate that problem. 

Dialogue can help carry the load, too. Winslow writes excellent dialogue and vivid internal monologues in the voices of his characters. How a person says something shows more about him or her than description. Look at these two passages:

She looked down at the cute kitten.

"Aren't you adorable." She picked up the kitten, which buried its nose in her neck and purred.

We see both actions, but HEAR the second one, and almost FEEL the cuddling, so it includes us in the scene.

Here are the opening lines of several novels and short stories in present tense. See how they involve the reader in the action?


I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. (
Gillian Flynn, Dark Places)

They shoot the white girl first. (Toni Morrison, Paradise)

The baby is dead in his mother's arms. (Don Winslow, The Power of the Dog)

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. (Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City)

In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. (John Updike, "A & P")

A screaming comes across the sky. (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow)

"I poisoned your drink." (Duane Swierczynski, The Blonde)

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying. (Hank Phillippi Ryan, Air Time)

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. (Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club)


They throw him out when he falls off the bar stool. (
Laura Lippman, The Most Dangerous Thing)

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch. (Steve Liskow, The Whammer Jammers)

By the way, I eventually sent out that short story in past tense because I  decided the rhythms worked better. But it's a case by case issue, like all writing. 

What rules do YOU like to break?

28 October 2020

Fortune & Men's Eyes


We have a mixed attitude toward history, and toward historical fiction, particularly fictionalized biography. I think the issues are compounded when the subject is familiar to us, through myth or received wisdom, and we take it personally. We can mislike having our habits of mind disturbed. Look at Shakespeare. He rests in a somewhat shallow grave; we know so little about him, the early years, certainly, that we’re each free to imagine him on our own image.

Which is what Kenneth Branagh does in his movie All Is True, not Shakespeare early on, but in old age. I don’t agree with much of Branagh’s speculation, but I don’t fault him for it. We can conjure up ownership out of affection for the plays, or the poetry, or fixed ideas, and resist a different interpretation. The difficulty I have with Branagh’s reconstruction isn’t that his Shakespeare is unconvincing personally, but his characterization of a working writer is inauthentic and reductive.


By contrast, Shakespeare in Love seems right to me, but probably because the filmmakers were less constrained by known quantities, and both convention and hard facts were elastic. They used playfulness to their advantage, and the picture lets in air and light.


My personal favorite is Anthony Burgess’ extraordinary Shakespeare novel, Nothing Like the Sun. He later published a straight-up biography, which I also devoured.

Burgess characterizes the late Elizabethan as a word-drunk age, and Nothing Like the Sun is profligate. Burgess was always drunk on words – Clockwork Orange, anybody? – but his Shakespeare book is written in a headlong Elizabethan stream-of-consciousness that bends the laws of physics. It was like nothing I’d ever read, and still is. It takes some balls to write Shakespeare in first-person, to imagine yourself into Will’s doublet and hose, and his voice.

That being said, All Is True has a lot of good stuff. The candlelit interiors were apparently shot by candlelight, for one, which is no small trick. The settings and the art direction are terrifically authentic. People were paying attention. The cast is wonderful: Branagh himself, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder as the older daughter, Ian McKellen’s cameo as Southampton. I think the picture suffers simply from being too earnest; I can’t buy the conceit that Shakespeare was treated like a monument in his own lifetime. He brought himself notoriety, and financial security, but how could he not still be, in his private and less secure moments, the upstart crow?


There’s one close to sublime moment in All Is True, a little past the halfway mark, when McKellen shows up as the Earl. It’s already been established in a conversation between Will and wife Anne that Southampton is widely thought to be the Dark Lady of the sonnets – they’re dedicated to him – and late at night, the two old boys slightly in their cups, Will reels off the whole of “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” as a sort of swan song or even perhaps reprimand. And then, astonishingly, Southampton quotes it back to him, from memory. The scene is done in tight close-up, a long single take for each of them, with no reaction shots. Every seamed furrow of their age shows in the firelight. These are men in their waning years, and the bloom of youth is long past, yet, “Like to the lark arising at break of day/From sullen earth,” we see them lit from within, luminous and transparent.


This is the last piece I’ll be posting before November 3rd is upon us. I’d ask that each and every one of us exercise our responsibility to vote. Take care and be well.

26 October 2020

Stratford Redux


 by Steve Liskow

Several weeks ago, I got an idea for a short story that needed a little refresher on Shakespeare. During my theater days, I directed six of his plays, acted in nine, and assigned about a dozen more. When I donated most of my acting books to the theater several years ago, I found the Arden, Oxford, Pelican, Penguin, Bantam and Signet editions of plays I directed on my shelves, along with four hard-cover complete collections. I kept those. 

Reading outside your genre makes you see things differently, and revisiting Shakespeare was the writing equivalent of a six-pack of Red Bull. Remember, the majority of his audience--who paid well and often to see his productions--was illiterate. They came for a good story and they got it. He knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. He owned a shared in the theater and retired at age 46, returning to Stratford and buying the second-largest house in town. 

Since looking up what I needed, I've reread The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. Even 2 Gents (Possibly his first produced work) shows us how to tell a story. Only in his late 20s, Will gives us plot and character arcs that are clear and strong. OK, the ending is a little hard to buy, but the structure and dialogue rock.

By the time I'd read the first act of 2 Gents, I understood the language again. Shakespeare wrote in modern English, and his punctuation is surprisingly contemporary. If you don't understand a line, stand up, read it out loud, and let the rhythms show you when and where to move. Trust me, it works. 

In Romeo and Juliet, look how Shakespeare differentiates Paris, Tybalt, Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio, all teen-aged boys, by their speech patterns. Notice how everything in the plot is logical and leads to that wrenching finish.


Learn from the constant vivid images that deepen the characters and carry the themes. Shakespeare wrote that play when he was about 30, so his "great" works are still to come.

In the middle of my career, I took an intensive (One-day) workshop on performing the plays from the First Folio text. It was so helpful that I bought a copy of the First Folio, and I kept that, too.

The introduction makes an important distinction. "[This] is not a collection of plays, but a collection of scripts." Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not to be read (remember, most of his audience couldn't read), and the difference matters. His actors often had only their own lines along with the cues (Today, we'd call these "sides"), but they could interpret the writer's verse, prose and rhythms for acting hints. If all English teachers took the workshop I did, students would come out of their classes loving Shakespeare instead of hating or fearing him. A theater group my wife still works with calls this phenomenon "Shakes-fear."

Alas, English teachers need no involvement with theater to get their degree. Most of them have none, and they teach Shakespeare as literature. It makes as much sense as a blind man teaching photography. 

Just as an aside, most editions of Romeo and Juliet put Mercutio's "Queen Mab" monologue in blank verse. The First Folio prints it in prose, and it flows better and is easier to follow. Actors could learn it more easily. 

Will can teach crime writers how to do it better, too.

You want noir? See how Lady Macbeth drives a good guy over the edge, 350 years before James M. Cain penned The Postman Always Rings Twice.


Verbal comedy?
The Comedy of Errors has Antipholus and Dromio discussing the Kitchen Wench with puns and repartee that Abbot and Costello might have cribbed for their "Who's on First?" gem. Foreshadowing? How about "Beware the Ides of March?"



I won't reread all the plays, but I will revisit several others. I've been away a long time.

17 August 2020

Comedy Is Hard


I've often been accused of being funny, except by my former students. I've directed comedy in theater, too, both contemporary (Christopher Durang) and classical (Several Shakespeare including The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night), and my stories and novels always include some humor.


A few years ago, someone suggested I add another workshop to my repertoire: writing humor. I hedged. Then I visited libraries, bookstores and the Internet to find books on writing comedy. I found only a few, and none of them helped me.

Drama is easy. Melodrama is easy. Comedy is eff-ing hard.

Comedy comes from two sources. One is the situation, the basis of slapstick humor. Shakespeare's drunks and fools usually followed this tradition, which goes back to the Greek and Roman playwrights (Remember, Will lifted The Comedy of Errors wholesale from Plautus). This often becomes farce, where the characters become puppets in service to the plot.

The other source is more intellectual or verbal. Puns, wordplay and irony replace the pratfalls, and some people appreciate this more than others. If you tell the same joke to ten people, a few will roar, some will chuck, a couple will smile, and at least one will say, "Oh, that's it?"

Like American English, comedy relies on rhythm. Years ago, I attended a one-day workshop on directing comedy, and the instructor stressed "The Machine," the progression and rhythm that make a scene or play "funny." He said if you change the order or any component, you'll kill the joke. I agree. Years ago, my wife played the fussy roommate in the female version of The Odd Couple, and the other actress insisted on adding "uh-huh, oh really" and other ad libs to the famous exchange about "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini." She never got a laugh. Ever. Not one single night.

The only other specific hint I remember about directing comedy came from my directing mentor in grad school: Gorgeous is not funny...unless she slips on a banana peel. 

My first drafts aren't funny. Humor grows out of revision, usually from a character's reaction to the situation, more ironic than slapstick. If it doesn't feel like part of the character and the whole milieu, it doesn't work for me. I try not to reach for it because if it emerges, it's a pleasant surprise for me, too, and that's how punchlines work. They deliver what the audience expects, but not the way they expect it. 

My favorite authors write humor better than I do. Maybe that's one reason I like them. Louise Penny uses twisted literary allusions and puns, usually as responses from the residents of Three Pines, whom we've grown to know and love over the course of her Armand Gamache series. 

Dennis Lehane's irony--karma comes to town--often involves character, too. Don Winslow can use irony, but he can also go slapstick. His recent novella "The San Diego Zoo" builds on an outrageous situation seen through the eyes of a cop who becomes a laughingstock on social media. The opening line is "Nobody knows how the chimp got the revolver," and the story races to the logically absurd conclusion from that premise. Elvis Cole, the PI of many Robert Crais novels, loves self-deprecating throw-aways. 

Several romance authors write great comedy, too. Look at Jennifer Crusie's dialogue, especially late in a book where her characters paraphrase earlier speeches and turn them on their heads.

None of these writers could steal another's joke and make it work in their own stories. Comedy is personal, and that's what makes it so hard.

You really do reveal yourself on the page. 

27 April 2020

How Low Will You Go?


Over the last two weeks, I've joined several other Connecticut crime writers on two podcasts from the Storyteller's Cottage in Simsbury. I've touted the venue before and love working with them. Now they're trying to keep their programs for writers functioning during the shutdown, and Lisa Natcharian invited several of us to discuss villains in our stories. I'll post the link to the podcast when it's edited and live, probably sometime in May.
Lisa came up with some provocative questions, and the topic for today is "How much evil can readers tolerate and how do you decide when to rein in a dark character?"

Her question made me look at my own writing again. I've sold nearly 30 short stories (a good week for Michael Bracken or John Floyd), and about half of them are from the bad guy's POV or have her/him getting away with it. Most of those stories involve revenge or poetic justice, and I seldom have a REALLY horrible person go scot-free. The comments on my website and Facebook Page indicate that readers like those stories, and some are among my special favorites.

Revisiting my novels, I was surprised to find how nasty some of my villains are, probably because I've worried lately that both my series characters are becoming more domestic in their private lives. Maybe I've done that unconsciously to contrast the "normal" and the dark side. But when I look at the bestseller lists, it's not just me.

If you look at those lists, you'll find Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman, S. J. Rozan, Robert Crais, Stephen King, Harlan Coban, Tana French, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, Alison Gaylin, and a slew of other excellent writers, all of whom go deep. When I think back to the 90s, maybe the first book and film to come to mind is Silence of the Lambs, which presents two twisted villains.

I don't remember the last time I saw a cozy mystery on the list.

One of my undergrad history professors from days of yore said the best way to understand the minds and values of a civilization was to look at their popular arts. Plays, music, stories. . .

Remember, in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was Titus Andronicus, which I usually describe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse. It was a time of political turmoil, and his plays reflected that.



One of the other writers on the podcast said her readers know she won't get violent and won't use much profanity. Obviously, if you write cozies, your body count is lower. She doesn't read my books because she thought one of my covers was objectionable.

Maybe my readers want darker stories to help them cope with the real world, the way we tell ghost stories around the campfire. Remember Shakespeare's observation in King Lear:  "The worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

Think of the Brothers Grimm, too. The original version of Cinderella involves the wicked stepsisters cutting off toes to make their feet fit the glass slipper, and birds pecking out those same stepsisters' eyes on their way to and from Cindy's wedding. The Greek tragedies wallow in gore.

Ditto slasher flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
We want to go waist-deep in the big bloody. Aristotle talked about catharsis. Maybe he's right. Maybe we've always been enticed by the horrific and crave a release. Maybe my history professor was right, too.

My most recent novels involve a serial killer who leaves the bodies of street people in abandoned buildings in Detroit, a cold case involving five people murdered in a home invasion, and a serial rapist. I think that as I watch the current social and political situation deteriorate, my inherited pessimism has become even stronger and it's coming out in my writing. Or maybe I do it to show that my life is nowhere near as bad as that of my characters. All I know is when I sit down at the keyboard, this is what comes out.

The book I'm vaguely resurrecting has a main character who is an alcoholic with an abusive husband, and I re-discovered things that excited me when I re-read scenes I had forgotten long ago. My last few short stories are darker, too. As long as people buy them, I'll keep going because people seem to need them.

When do I rein these characters in? I don't.

What's in YOUR holster right now?

16 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue II: Dialogue and Character


Last time, we talked about linking dialogue so the characters interact with each other, and that's especially important in drama because it helps actors remember their lines. But dialogue isn't just "people talking." It enhances your story-telling by deepening your characters and enriching your plot.

Today, we'll look at characterization.

Screenwriter Tom Sawyer, who oversaw Murder, She Wrote among other projects, says that if you can give a line of dialogue to a different character without rewriting it, it was badly written anyway.

I use what I call the CAWS test (Hey, everybody's got to have a gimmick):

Would this CHARACTER, speaking to this AUDIENCE, say these WORDS in this SITUATION?
If the answer to any part of the question is "NO," you need to rewrite the line.

Each character talks like himself or herself, which enables readers to "hear" them. Think of old radio plays, where an actor may have been chosen to play a role because his voice sounded appropriate for the character.

That means each CHARACTER needs specific images, rhythms and vocabulary (Another good reason to keep your cast in a play as small as possible) to create his or her voice.

If you treat the person as an archetype (Hero, Warrior, Magician, Temptress, Mentor, Lover, etc.), his purpose in the story will help you find his speaking style. Reformers want to improve things, so they often give advice. Leaders want to appear strong and self-reliant, so they give orders. Mentors/Coaches/Teachers usually start with the good news and move to the problems that need to be addressed.

Shakespeare demonstrates this for us. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice uses more aggressive verbs than other characters, and Portia and Nerissa discuss marriage in terms we might use for a business deal.

Romeo & Juliet presents five teen-aged males. Tybalt always has the subtext, "Wanna fight?" Mercutio is funny and often bawdy. Benvolio reports and tattles. Paris is polite and courtly, the kid moms all wish their daughter would bring home. Romeo constantly moans about love, so over-the-top you want to smack him until Juliet makes him grow up.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Nobles (Blank verse and very logical), Mechanicals (Prose, except for the hilarious Pyramus & Thisbe farce), Lovers (Rhymed couplets and cliches about love), and Fairies (Blank verse with images of power [Oberon] or nurturing [Titania]) all have different speaking styles.

Think about your character's goal, too. If you understand what she or he wants--money, power, love, answers--that can help you decide the tactics she will use, such as demanding, pleading, lying manipulating, or threatening.

Now think about the AUDIENCE. Maybe your character will curse or discuss sex, but not in front of his grandmother. Maybe a child won't understand the issue so he has to simplify his language. Maybe the stockholders want the bad news delivered in a positive way.

WORDS are all we have, and we need to get them right. A character's vocabulary shows his education level, religion, family, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, occupation, and maybe biases.

Many people have favorite expressions or jargon from their jobs: computer, sports, medical, business.
Think of regionalisms. Margaret Maron's Knott family often uses the expression "might could," which has a rhythm that slows the pace and captures their Southern drawl.

Be careful with dialects or accents, though. Most editors tell you to avoid phonetic spelling and think what you're doing. I encountered "oncet" in a speech and it stopped me cold. The better spelling would have been "wunst." I grew up in an area where under-educated people referred to their relative as a cousint, with an audible final "T." Your best bet is to use a few key words to suggest everything, or mention that your character has a French accent and go on about your business.
To Kill A Mockingbird needs the accent and mind-set of the characters

You can give the impression of an accent by avoiding contractions or changing word order, too. American English is all about rhythm, so putting an adjective after a noun or using a participle instead of the verb makes the sentence sound foreign, like Yoda. I have an Eastern European character in one series, and I compare her consonants to scissors snipping paper. Blue Song Riley in my Woody Guthrie series is half-Asian, and when she uses a long word, all her syllables have equal stress. I only mention this once or twice in her first scene and let people fill in the blanks.

Maybe your character has a speech problem. A stutter, lisp, or spoonerism is fun, but don't over-do it. Ellery Queen wrote a short story decades ago ("My Queer Dean," if you can find it) in which the solution depends on the victim inverting initial consonants ("My Dear Queen").

Maybe the character has favorite expressions or cliches, or mispronounces words. I grew up struggling with "Refriger-E-ator," and my cousin (No "T") called those things with two slices of bread "Smitches."

Mangling cliches can be fun, too.

A few novelists and playwrights use profanity well. Years ago, my local theater presented Glengarry Glen Ross and referred to the writer as "David Effing Mamet," minus the euphemism. If you're not comfortable with cursing yourself, don't try it. It will sound fake. If you have to use it, emphasize the NOUN, not the participle. It's an effing FORK, not an EFFING fork.

Remember your SITUATION or setting, too. People talk differently at a funeral, job interview, a first date, or in a bar. Are there props at hand: a pool cue, salad bar, golf club, or AK-47? Setting involves mood, too. Someone might be excited, remorseful, sad, jealous, terrified, or confused. Let their words convey this. Situation or setting involves time, too, so beware of anachronisms. Servants in Regency England did NOT say "No problem."

Lastly, dialogue can help you show how a character grows or changes. This is common late in a story, maybe in one long scene. If you want to show it with minimal narration, try having your character paraphrase, change, or even contradict something he said earlier in the story. If her opinion has changed, she has, too. Louise Penny does this in her Inspector Gamache novels, where certain characters will repeat a line, often a literary allusion, that gathers or changes implications throughout the story.

Next time, we'll look at how dialogue can advance your plot.

17 February 2020

When They Say It's Not About Politics...


My daughter gave me The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter's newest novel, for Christmas and I tore through it in about three days. Slaughter is one of my favorite writers, and the first half of the book felt like a freight train with no brakes careening down a steep hill. I turned pages quickly enough to leave a trail of smoke and risk uncountable paper cuts.

I seldom pay attention to online reviews, but when I finished this one, I looked on Amazon out of curiosity. Slaughter is one of several authors I read who gathers mixed reviews because she takes chances and doesn't adhere to the standard template. Sure enough, The Last Widow had 795 reviews, 63% five-star, and 9% one-star.

The one-star reviews often complained that Slaughter let her politics get in the way of the story. Well, a group of white nationalist kidnaps Sarah Linton, the female protagonist, as part of their deadly plot, and, given that premise, it's hard to be apolitical.

That's why I usually ignore online reviews.

In one way or another, MOST art is political because artists deal with important issues in life.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King as a reaction to the contemporary debate about predestination. His play takes the issue head-on, and his opinion is clear. Euripides leaves no doubt what he thinks of war in The Trojan Women. Nice people don't throw the child of a vanquished rival off the battlements and turn the surviving women into sex slaves.



Shakespeare's 37 (or 40, or 50, depending on whose count you believe) plays constantly involve politics.
Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear discuss, among other issues, who succeeds to the throne. Measure For Measure asks tough questions about women, love, sex, and relationships, and offers no easy answers (The main "good guy" has a creepy voyeuristic streak, too).
All the histories involve kings and, usually, war. Even comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night discuss the roles of women in society, and the misuse of power, still timely as the Me Too Movement and Roe vs Wade are still crucial issues.

Jane Austen and Emily Bronte present the situation of women in the 1800s, unable to vote, own property, or inherit. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bennet with five daughters who will starve if he can't marry them off to husbands who will support them. Wuthering Heights is built around the British Law of Entails, a devious way to control who inherits property if no sons succeed.

In America, Twain looks at slavery through bitter eyes in Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in our country's schools, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, which looks at the same issue from 80 years later...although we haven't advanced much. Uncle Tom's Cabin, far more racist than either of the others, was a blockbuster best-seller before the word existed.

Robert Penn Warren gives us All The King's Men, a fictionalized vision of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor who used graft and kickbacks left and right...and used the money to build highways and hospitals. Alan Drury won the Pulitzer in 1960 with Advise And Consent (102 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and later a film with Henry Fonda), and that's all about politics.

Other novels, off the top of my head: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (if you haven't read these, do so before the second of the three books appears next fall on HBO.)

I know almost nothing about painting, but even I can point to Picasso's Guernica.

Plays: Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods is about two arms negotiators meeting to talk during the Cold War. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (maybe my least favorite play of all time), All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and Death of a Salesman. Miller always looked at the shafting of the little guy by big business or bigger government. Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, which the Religious Reich should go see sometime.

Films: Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

The classic western High Noon asks if we deserve freedom and law if we won't fight to defend them.Many in that production were blacklisted because of their involvement, and I still don't understand why. What about The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck dodged a death threat after writing the novel, and the film, made on an 800K budget, still gives me chills when I listen to Henry Fonda deliver
Tom Joad's farewell speech in that flat monotone.

Beethoven first called Symphony #3 the "Bounaparte," but changed it to "Eroica" after Napoleon became Emperor.
Where would American folk music be without Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger, and the Weavers?  Or their descendants, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Doors ("The Unknown Soldier") and Country Joe & The Fish (I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag--remember "Gimme an 'F'?).

Politics should be separate from art. Yeah, right.

Maybe flavor should be separate from food, too.

This list barely unscrews the lid from the jar. What other works can you name?

24 December 2018

The Christmas Spirit




"Brown Eyes Crying in the Rain," my take on the Ghostly Hitchhiker legends, appears in the upcoming issue of Occult Detective Quarterly. It didn't occur to me until a few days ago how appropriate that is. Tomorrow is, of course, Christmas Day.


The British have told ghost stories as part of the holiday celebration for centuries, apparently because the winter solstice is only a few days earlier and the Christians co-opted December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and overshadow the Pagan Saturnalia. Ghosts presumably walk more freely on the longest night of the year, which celebrates the death and re-birth of the sun.

Oliver Cromwell, never the life of the party, didn't want Christmas celebrated as a holiday. He wanted the workers to labor for another long and underpaid shift. During his tenure as ruler of the Commonwealth, he even banned Christmas carols. Barrel of laughs, that Ollie.

But the ghost story is still alive and well (Is that an oxymoron?), and it may have reached its peak of popularity in the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens published short novels for the season, many of them ghostly tales. His most famous is A Christmas Carol. Does anyone even know how many films and theatrical adaptations of that one work exist? My wife and I attended a stage version at the Hartford Stage Company this year, where it has been an annual event for twenty years. It still sells out the thirty performances.

Other British writers have offered ghost stories, too. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1611), Prince Mamillius says, "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/ Of sprites and goblins." We never hear the tale because Mamillius dies before intermission. Mary Shelly Wrote Frankenstein when Byron challenged her and others to write a ghost story, and she dated the beginning of the book in mid-December. Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell revived the faltering tradition along with Dickens. Algernon Blackwood, Conan Doyle and M. R. James carried it on.

I don't remember Poe setting any of his stories at Christmas (I can't find my copy of "The Devil in the Belfry" on my shelf. Is that set at yuletide?), but Henry James sets the telling of The Turn of the Screw around the fire during a Christmas celebration.

Remember the popular (Well, in my day...) Andy Williams song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?" The third verse ends with "...There'll be scary ghost stories/ And tales of the glories..."

I seldom set stories around a holiday, the only exception being "Santa and the Shortstop," which appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine a few years ago.

But who knows? A little more eggnog and maybe I'll be in the spirit to write another ghost story for next year...

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fright.

17 September 2018

Who Wrote It?


When an anonymous "senior administration official" published an op ed in the New York Times two weeks ago, he (or possibly they ) set off another firestorm in the current presidency. Countless articles and online posts have tried to identify the author(s) and the suspects range from Mike Pence to Dan Coates to Steve Bannon, and one even suggests Trump wrote it himself, which I seriously doubt.

Hand-writing analysis has been with us for even longer than the "forensic linguistics" that people are using to identify this writer. But there are stumbling blocks to the approach in this case. It's a small sample and we don't have anything else we can compare it to. We need another article on a similar subject of about the same length by each of the 100 (I love that!) suspects to make a meaningful decision.

The experts look at how certain words are used, how a writer punctuates and uses paragraphs, and many other clues. The good ones claim the science is almost as solid as DNA, but that may be pushing it. More than one expert has pointed out that we don't know how much the Times altered words, phrasing or punctuation to bring the piece in line with its own style guides.

In any case, while there are writers who had a distinctive and usually recognizable style, such as Hemingway and Faulkner, both of whom had contests involving people writing a pastiche of their work, there are others who change style and voice often. Laura Lippman comes to mind. Some writers have been identified even when they use a pseudonym. Patrick Juola, presently at Duquesne University, used forensic linguistics to prove that J. K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling, even though the name on the book cover was Robert Galbraith. Gary Taylor boosted his reputation as a Shakespearean by identifying an unattributed (and not very good) poem to the Bard.

When I was still directing plays, I had a reputation as a minor-league expert on Shakespeare. I have read most of the plays several times, acted in a dozen of them, and directed still others. While teaching, I assigned fourteen different plays at one time or another.
 In 1990, Charles Hamilton published a text that he claimed was Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio, basing his conclusion on handwriting analysis, which is problematic because authorities argue over which of several samples really is Shakespeare's hand--if any of those samples we have really is his own. Hamilton said The Second Maiden's Tragedy, credited to Thomas Middleton, was really the text of Cardenio, possibly co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

I read the play and disagreed. Thomas Middleton wrote a play called The Witch, which Shakespeare borrowed heavily from for the witch scenes in Macbeth. Shakespeare and Fletcher collaborated near the end of Shakespeare's career, and Cardenio--inspired by a section of Don Quixote, which was published in English in 1612--didn't fit what Shakespeare was producing at that point. I say this as someone who devoured John Barton's and Cicely Berry's books on how Shakespeare used language because they helped me direct. So does the First Folio.

Cardenio was supposedly written between The Tempest and All Is True (Henry VIII), just after The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline.  I've acted in and directed separate productions of The Winter's Tale (about 20 years apart) and participated in two productions of The Tempest. Compared to them, the language in Cardenio is clumsy and immature. The cast is much smaller than in any of Shakespeare's other plays (remember, bit players often played several roles), and the structure is even more truncated than Macbeth, which is complete but always feels like something's been cut. Even on his own, John Fletcher was better than this. So was Kit Marlowe. So were the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby and Francis Bacon.


Truthfully, the authorship is fine topic for yet another graduate thesis, but I don't care who wrote the plays as long as good directors and actors continue to perform them for the rest of us.

Same with the New York Times op ed.

I don't care as much about who wrote the piece as I do about the admission that the White House staff is undermining Trump's actions out of self-interest instead of taking the appropriate steps to invoke the 25th Amendment for the Greater Good.

30 April 2018

Smile and Be a Villain


By sad coincidence, two of our cats died several years apart on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday. Last week, the Bard turned 454 (I didn't send a card) and his plays still merit constant performances the world over. Shakespeare thought he would be remembered for his poems (except for the sonnets, only slightly better than John Dillinger's) and retired at age 47 a relatively wealthy man, especially for a writer.
It's easy to talk about his brilliant images and use of symbols and all that high-school-worksheet stuff, but his plays would live on anyway because he wrote brilliant conflicted characters, especially his villains. He constantly reminds us that everyone needs a goal or motive, especially the bad guys. They aren't just "bad by nature"--although Don John claims that he is in Much Ado About Nothing.

In King Lear, Edmund tells us he's standing up for bastards,
but he's jealous because his little brother Edgar, born of married parents, will inherit Gloucester's estate even though he's younger than Edmund. Jealously and sibling rivalry are powerful forces. Look at the women in the same play: Goneril and Regan want their father Lear's estate, but the younger Cordelia is daddy's favorite...until she can't flatter him enough and he kicks her out with the tragically incorrect proclamation that nothing will come of nothing. Actually, it will lead to at least eight deaths.

The older sibs in both families are monsters, but we understand why they lie, stab servants, commit adultery, scheme against each other, plan to murder their spouses, and tear out Gloucester's eyes. The sins of the fathers live on in the children. Lear may be my favorite Shakespearean play and I'd love to direct it if I thought I could find fourteen strong actors in community theater. Unfortunately, age is a factor for at least three men, and the women are stuck as Goody Two-Shoes and the Bitches, a darker version of Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Macbeth is the only other Shakespeare play still on my directing bucket list (I've directed six)--if I could find an appropriate time period that hasn't been recycled into cliche and decide how to present the witches (I've considered young, nubile, scantily clad and dimly lit because they personify temptation, Macbeth's loss of innocence). Macbeth is a war hero who goes to hell in blank verse because those bearded sisters offer him a tempting look at the future and he makes the mistake of telling his wife. His fall gives us two of my favorite monologues, the "If 'twere done when 'tis done" speech as he contemplates murdering Duncan and the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" tour de force while the walls buckle around him. That speech also gives us "it is a tale full of sound and fury, told by idiot, signifying nothing."

Lady Macbeth is a difficult role to play (I've seen it done badly more often than not), but the actors or directors miss the point. Lady M is the forerunner of the modern groupie, and power is her aphrodisiac. Listen to the rhythms of her "come you spirits of the night" speech and you'll hear her bare her soul.

Iago feels Othello has unfairly passed him over for promotion, so he vows revenge, always a clear motive. He sizes up Othello as a man who loves his wife so much that he will believe the worst, and turns innuendo into high art when he "suggests" that Desdemona and Cassio are intimate. His attention to a handkerchief makes Professor Moriarty and Snidely Whiplash look like Boy Scouts.

I've played Claudius, the adulterous uncle/step-father in Hamlet. He loves Gertrude so much he kills his own brother to be with her, but his futile prayers ("My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thought never to heaven go.") show he knows he's still going straight to hell.
Hamlet stabs him with the envenomed epee and pours the poisoned chalice down his throat (talk about overkill) to hasten him on his way. His "Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven" speech is  as powerful as his stepson's monologues, but seldom quoted.

Technically, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice isn't a villain so much as a victim, but he makes his case to Antonio and Bassanio when they "cut" the deal for Antonio's pound of flesh. "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine..."
Rehearsal shot (note unpainted floor) from my 2006 Merchant

They don't write them like that anymore.

'Tis true, 'tis pity, and, pity 'tis, 'tis true.


As a footnote, tonight is Walpurgisnacht, the night the demons walk. It's the night the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream wander in the woods before getting everything sorted out for their weddings along with Theseus on May Day.

And, as BSP, my story "The Girl in the Red Bandanna" appears in the latest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, along with a story by our late blog partner, B. K. Stevens.

14 March 2017

The Sensitivity Police


by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to this week’s post, a little BSP. I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. In fact, I’m blown away. I want to thank everyone who voted for it! And I’m tempted to give Sally Field a run for her money and say, “You like me, you really like me,” or at least my story 😉. If you’d like to read it (and maybe consider it for other awards) you can read it free on my website: http://pauldmarks.com/stories/ 


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And now to the subject at hand: I recently came across an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.” That, of course, piqued my interest. And I will say at the outset that I’m a free speech absolutist. If you don’t like something don’t read it, but don’t stop others from saying it or reading it.



After all, who’s to say what’s offensive? What’s offensive to me might not be to you and vice versa. That said, I see things every day that I disagree with. I don’t like to say that I find them offensive because I think that word is overused and I also think people tend to get offended too easily and by too many things.

As writers I think this is something we should be concerned about. Because, even if you agree with something that’s blue-penciled today tomorrow there might be something you write where you disagree with the blue-pencil. Where does it end? Also, as a writer, I want to be able to say what I want. If people don’t like it they don’t have to read it. I don’t want to be offensive, though perhaps something may hit someone that way. But we can’t worry about every little “offense” because there are so many things to be offended about.

It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.”


And, of course, publishers have the right to publish what they want. But limiting things doesn’t change much. It just goes underground.

The Tribune article says, “More recently, author Veronica Roth - of ‘Divergent’ fame - came under fire for her new novel, ‘Carve the Mark.’ In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.” So now we have to worry about how we portray people with chronic pain. Again, where does it end?

I’ve dealt with chronic pain. Should I be offended every time someone says something about those things that I don’t like. Get over it, as the Eagles say in their eponymous song. The piece also talks about writers hiring people to vet their stories for various things, in one case transgender issues. If it’s part of one’s research I don’t have a problem with that. Or if it’s to make something more authentic. But if it’s to censor a writer or sanitize or change the writer’s voice, that’s another story.

There’s also talk about a database of readers who will go over your story to look for various issues. But again, who’s to say what issues offend what people? Do you need a reader for this issue and another for that? If we try to please everyone we end up pleasing no one and having a book of nearly blank or redacted pages. Or if not literally that then a book that might have some of its heart gutted.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for authenticity but I think this kind of thing often goes beyond that. When we put out “sanitized” versions of Huck Finn or banning books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has also been banned and of which Wikipedia says, “Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”

The Wall Street Journal also talks about this issue, saying in part, “One such firm, Writing in the Margins, says that it will review ‘a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language,’ helping to ensure that an author writing ‘outside of their own culture and experience” doesn’t accidentally say something hurtful.’ I’m not saying one should be hurtful, but I am saying one should write what they want to write. And if taken to the ultimate extreme then we would only be “allowed” to write about our own little group. And that would make our writing much poorer.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But I do believe in free speech, even if it is sometimes hurtful.

We should think about the consequences of not allowing writers to write about certain things, or things outside of their experience. Think of the many great books that wouldn’t have been written, think of your own work that would have to be trashed because you aren’t “qualified” to write about it. There are many things in the world that hurt and offend and that aren’t fair. And let’s remember what Justice Brandeis said.

In closing one more quote from the Journal article: “Even the Bard could have benefited. Back when Shakespeare was writing ‘Macbeth,’ it was still OK to use phrases like, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But that is no longer so. The word ‘idiot’ is now considered cruelly judgmental, demeaning those who, through no fault of their own, are idiots. A sensitivity reader could propose something less abusive, such as, ‘It is a tale told by a well-meaning screw-up, signifying very little but still signifying something. I mean, the poor little ding-dong was trying.’”

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And now for the usual BSP:

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.